San Bruno Mayor Jim Ruane was cutting the ribbon to mark the opening of a music store on San Mateo Avenue when, less than 3 miles away, an explosion rocked the Crestmoor neighborhood at 6:11 p.m. Sept. 9, 2010.
“I looked up and could see this huge plume of smoke,” Ruane said. “I thought it was a huge residential fire.”
Without hesitating, Ruane headed straight for the plume. There, a 28-foot-long section of natural-gas pipeline owned by PG&E burst at Earl Avenue and Glenview Drive.
Ruane parked his car a few blocks away, at Crestmoor Drive and San Bruno Avenue, arriving at the same time as the first responders. He remained in the area without interruption for the next two days.
Looking down at the blaze, Ruane could see flames engulfing houses, sending residents scrambling away. It took nearly two hours to shut off the gas.
“It just kept billowing out of the ground — it was a terrible scene,” Ruane said. “I remember the hideous sound of the gas pouring out of the street, the warmth on top of Glenview Drive."
In the end, dozens of homes were destroyed, many people were injured and eight San Bruno residents were killed.
Yet the grim night did not pass without many good deeds happening.
For example, nearby Lunardi's Market, which had lost power, wheeled out cases of beverages for displaced residents. It was an example of the “amazing outpouring of care from the entire neighborhood,” Ruane said.
“People in San Bruno are very kind, and it was just a wonderful experience in that respect,” he said. “It's something that's extraordinary and something I will never forget.”
It has been nearly four years since the deadly disaster, but its aftereffects have not passed.
The explosion affected pipeline safety, sparking a series of new laws, procedural changes and fines.
In March 2011, San Bruno reached a $50 million trust agreement with PG&E to enable the city to respond to immediate and long-term costs related to the explosion, such as rebuilding water and sewer lines, said City Manager Connie Jackson.
Per the agreement, an initial $12 million deposit was made that an independent trustee would disperse to San Bruno on a reimbursement basis, Jackson said.
The California Public Utilities Commission, beginning in mid-2011, opened three investigative proceedings — one on recordkeeping, one on operations of pipelines in high-consequence areas and one specifically on the root cause of the San Bruno explosion.
The investigations are essentially complete, but the commission has yet to propose associated penalties, which Jackson said could happen any day.
On Aug. 30, 2011, nearly a year after the explosion, the National Transportation Safety Board released its report on the incident. The report stated that PG&E lacked “a detailed and comprehensive procedure for responding to large-scale emergencies such as a transmission pipeline break.” The report also outlined safety recommendations for PG&E.
After lengthy negotiations between San Bruno and PG&E, the two reached a $70 million settlement agreement in March 2012 to benefit the city and residents, according to Jackson.
The San Bruno Community Foundation — a seven-member board of community members appointed by the City Council — was subsequently established to manage the funds. The foundation held its first meeting in March 2014.
In December 2012, the CPUC approved its pipeline-safety implementation plan for PG&E, considered the first significant result of the commission's proceedings, according to Jackson.
Per the plan, the CPUC required PG&E to pressure test 783 miles of natural-gas pipeline, replace 186 miles of pipeline, upgrade 199 miles of pipeline to allow in-line inspection, and install 228 automated shutoff valves.
The majority of the underground infrastructure work in the Crestmoor neighborhood occurred in 2013, particularly in the footprint of the immediate fire-damaged area, said Jackson.
Additionally, of the more than a dozen bills related to the explosion introduced by state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, six were passed, most recently Senate Bill 271 in October. That bill requires the CPUC to develop a safety enforcement program for gas and electric violations.
Hill — who keeps a framed list on his desk in Sacramento of the eight names of those killed in the explosion — said he wants to ensure such a disaster never happens again.
“In order to do that, we have to legislatively require the utilities commission to do their job, which they have neglected to do,” Hill said.
The explosion and fire destroyed 38 of the 376 homes in the Crestmoor neighborhood. By April, 26 of those homes had been rebuilt, said Jackson.
The remaining 12 plots of land remain essentially empty. Seven are owned by PG&E, which the utility company purchased from homeowners who opted not to rebuild at the site. Of the remaining five plots — which are owned by San Bruno — two will likely become open space or some sort of other public use, and homes will be constructed on the other three.
In July, San Bruno completed replacement of the underground infrastructure — including water, sewer and storm drain lines — throughout the entire neighborhood. The next step is to finish surface improvements, such as new street lights, curbs, sidewalks and repaving. Temporary resurfacing is expected to begin in a few weeks.
The Crestmoor neighborhood has endured “a great deal of disruption” for nearly four years, said Jackson, the city manager.
“That process has been long and difficult,” she said of rebuilding. “It still looks kind of like a war zone up there.”
And there is no telling what pain will remain when the neighborhood rebuilding project is complete.
“We're getting there,” Ruane said of San Bruno's recovery. “I don't think in the bigger picture, especially in that particular area of the city, we'll ever be completely recovered.
“We'll never forget what happened.”